The Numbers:13 Project
Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the chieftains of the community came out to meet them outside the camp. Numbers 31:13
Every time my grandchildren come to visit (driven by their parents, of course), my wife and I wait anxiously for them to arrive. When the car pulls up to our house, invariably, no matter the weather, we come out the front door to get the earliest possible hugs.
There are some few other guests who get that kind of welcome. But unless someone is schlepping large or heavy packages, we generally allow them to approach the house in their own time. That’s why we have a doorbell.
I mean no reference to Seinfeld when I suggest that we are the masters of our domain. It is up to us whether we admit a visitor (even if that visitor used to be a resident!). And other than our perfect grandchildren, there are two different reasons we might try to intercept someone on the way to our door.
The first is to show particular respect or honor. A much-anticipated visitor who is especially loved or missed might very well be accompanied on those last few steps as an expression of special welcome. It is as if to say, symbolically, I am coming to retrieve you from afar and escort you to my home. In story and song, from the Bible to Broadway, a delegation that goes out to meet the arriving or returning dignitary is an indication of deference and celebration.
The second is to express caution. A person’s home is their refuge and the place in which their most precious family members reside. It is a place of privacy and safety, and it contains their valuables – not just material goods, but also memories of a life lived. A delegation that steps out of the front door, closing it behind, to prevent arriving visitors from stepping up to the threshold, issues an unspoken warning: leave any hostilities outside or I will not admit you.
The householder is always in the position of power. Whether that power is used deferentially or as a deterrent, the decision is theirs to deploy it or withhold it.
This dynamic is not only literal. It is also symbolic. When the house is not just a house, the arriving outsider may be just as surely welcomed or warned.
Think about a house of worship. In my tradition, that is the synagogue. Years ago, when our neighbor Presbyterians quit their church for a months-long renovation, they moved in with us. On a designated Sunday, they made the walk of a few blocks to their temporary home. Waiting for them outside to usher them in were leaders and members of the synagogue community. We greeted them with “Welcome home.” The awaiting delegation made a profoundly loving start to a season of very close quarters.
These days, if you approach the same house of worship, you will find that the householders have someone to meet you on the way in, too – a sheriff’s deputy, whose presence is meant to reassure the arriving worshipers of their safety, and to deliver the message to leave any hostilities outside or I will not admit you. It is an unfortunate response to a climate of fear.
The same contrast is true when the house is not actually a house. Institutions have householders, gatekeepers who decide who gets admitted and who does not. They can flex their muscle by controlling the approach as well as the admission. From the bouncer on the rope line at a club to the majority leader of a legislative body, these power holders can determine who will be welcomed and who will be frustrated. Some will enjoy the dance, and others will be excluded from the very process.
It is worth thinking about the messages that come with greeting those who arrive at your house when you step outside the front door. Are you making a show of power or of delight – or even both.
All of this applies to every circumstance except one. If our delicious grandchildren show up at your place, rush to get your hugs. Don’t waste a minute on ceremony.